The Endless Steppe – Esther Hautzig (1968)

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In my last post, I had mentioned that I had fallen upon the Dewey 900s at the library. Such riches that I didn’t even knew existed! Without any more further gushing, let me now introduce you to the title “The Endless Steppe” by Esther Hautzig.

As a child, Hautzig and her family had the bad luck to be living in Poland (now Lithuania) just as WWII was starting up and Germany was invading places left, right, and center. She had come home from school one day, only to be faced with the news that she and her parents and grandparents were going to be sent away to Siberia that same day for being evil capitalists. They could only take one small bag with each of them, and there was very little time of to think of what to include in your luggage. How would you ever know what to pack quickly for an unexpected and unwanted trip-with-no-return to a forced labor camp in Siberia?

Hautzig does a great job of communicating the chaos and panic which would happen if your family were suddenly told one day to leave. Siberia is cold, but how cold? What would the living conditions be like as compared to their upper-middle class life in Poland? Looking back at this with twenty-first century eyes, it’s almost unbelievable that this all happened to millions of innocent families, but it did and this autobiography details the experience through the eyes of a young 11 year old girl.

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The family spend weeks in an unheated cattle car on a train, never knowing where they were going or when they would get there. There were no bathroom facilities, the cars were very crowded with no seats, and no food or water (apart from that that they had brought themselves). None of the passengers were prepared for this (because – why would you be?) and as the train went east, the temperature dropped and the scenery became flat and treeless.

At first, it seems quite an adventure, but as conditions deteriorated, the seriousness of the situation becomes clear. What also becomes clear is that the family and their fellow passengers can do absolutely nothing about their unexpected journey, apart from try to be mentally strong. Her parents (and grandparents) had been of a professional class (her father was an engineer), but as the miles passed, they found out that whatever their professions may have been was to be of no importance in their Siberian future.

The family was separated (never to see each other again), and Esther and her parents eventually wound up at a gypsum mine where her father would be expected to drive a horse and cart, and her mother – who had never worked in her life – was going to be dynamiting the gypsum in the mine. Food was in short supply with watery cabbage soup being the most common meal, and although life is really very hard, Esther and her family survive through the extreme temperatures with few resources. Their privileged life in Lithuania was of little help to them now that they were reduced to survival mode.

This autobiography is an interesting read about a pretty typical middle class family who is suddenly thrown into an atypical situation and how they cope. It’s not easy, but by the time five years have passed, the war is over and the family are set to return. One would think that they would be very excited to get back home and to their former lives, but getting home would mean returning to nothing as their house and possessions would not be waiting. Additionally, Esther had spent five years growing up on the steppe, and to her, it was home much more so that Lithuania would be.

This was an interesting read. I think it’s classified as a YA but the story is so well written that it really sucked me in. Interestingly, the story only came to light when the author Esther Hautzig wrote a letter to a journalist who had written another article about this whole thing, and the reporter suggested to Esther that she write her story down. Hautzig didn’t do any more autobiographical work after that, and in fact, kept well away from it publishing a few titles to do with frugal sewing on a budget.

Despite the YA label, this was an excellently written book about a harrowing experience.

Dreams From my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance – Barack Obama (1995)

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Wincing at whatever the latest gaffe that our latest President has talked himself into, I thought it would be pretty interesting to take a look at the man who had just left the U.S. Presidency and learn a bit more about his life. Written in 1995 (and thus written when he was only in his early thirties), this well-written autobiography was an easy and interesting read about the life of the first African-American President in these here States.

I really enjoyed this deeper look at Obama, and seeing from where he came and how he had seen his life as he was growing up. I knew that he was born biracial and that he had had a lot of his childhood in Hawaii, but apart from that (and from his actions from when he was in office), I didn’t know that much about him. After having read this book and looking back at his Presidency, I can understand so much more about how he sees the world, how his world view included everyone (as opposed to a few rich white men), and how he had to piece his own identity together from a scattered family.

Regardless of how you feel about Obama, his life is an interesting read. He’s not perfect, but there is much to admire, IMO, and he has always been honest in his flaws and used them as a framework to develop a more tolerant country in so many ways.

This was a fast and fascinating read for me to learn about our former President, one who (for me) is missed every day.

Let’s do some catch-up…

catch_upSo I’ve been reading, but there seem to have been one or two titles which are good but not quite enough to warrant an individual blog post. Honestly, I don’t think it’s the books’ fault so much as it is the reader’s in each case, so don’t think these books are less worthy or anything. It’s mostly a time thing at the moment.

A Long Way Home – Saroo Brierley (2015).

This is an autobiography written by a young man who grew up very poor in an Indian city and who, one day when he was only five years old, was playing on the train tracks with his older brother when he accidentally got locked into a railway carriage and was whisked away across the country to Mumbai, where he was put into an orphanage and then adopted by an overseas couple. This tale is how, by overcoming all the odds, he found his way home again. (This is the book that the movie Lion is based upon, btw.) It’s a fantastic story – that’s true – but I think the read would have been better if he’d used a professional ghostwriter (or editor) to up his writing game a bit. It was well written (in that there were few grammar errors etc.), but the level of writing was rather fundamental and rather clunky at times. Still a good story though. It might be better to watch the film than read the book.

Trifles – Susan Gaspell (1916)

I had recently been playing around with my Century of Reading (COB) project, and wanted to find a title that would help fill in some of the remaining blanks (not many really). So I searched for “books published in 1916”, and wanting a more esoteric title and something that wasn’t 500 pages long, picked out a play which seemed to fit the bill.

Just to be clear, despite the play being called Trifles, the play is not about that wonderful English confection of jelly/jello, whipped cream and other fine tasty tidbits. It’s used, in this case, in the sense of “seemingly unimportant things usually linked with women and said by men”… :-}

This play (which I’d not heard of before but I’m not a dramatic expert by any means) was interesting and is actually one of those stories that stick in your head for ages after you’ve finished it as you mull over the various interpretations of how it could be read (or played).

Set out in the country of somewhere like the Midwest, the narrative revolves around the death of Mr. Wright, a farmer who lived in a remote house along with his wife (obvs. called Mrs. Wright). The local sheriff and a deputy are searching the home for any clues after learning that Mr. Wright had died by strangulation. Was it a murder, and if so, who did it?

At the same time as the police officials are searching for clues, there are two women from the nearby community also accompanying the two men in a tag-along sort of way. The small community is far from other towns so any news is big news to the local folk. (It’s really interesting, btw, to see how these guys treat the crime scene vs. now how the crime scene is treated i.e. stomping around everywhere… 🙂 )

They are all unsure how to explain the crime until the women find a dead canary….

It’s a pretty good play to read, but I was more happy, TBH, that it filled out a year in the COB project. 🙂

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Library Haul – It’s good to have choices…

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So, as tends to happen on the weekend, I visited the library and ended up leaving with quite the stack. I’m not sure if I will actually get to all of these, but it’s fun to have the choices..

Top to bottom in above image:

        • This Side of Paradise – Scott Fitzgerald 1920 (F)
        • The Crofter and the Laird: Life on an Hebridean Island – John McPhee 1969 (NF)
        • The Endless Steppe – Esther Hautzig 1968 (NF)
        • Bedknob and Broomstick – Mary Norton 1943 (F)
        • Roads: Driving America’s Great Highways – Larry McMurtry 2000 (NF travel)
        • Dreams from My Father – Barack Obama 1995 (NF – autobiography)
        • As Texas Goes: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda – Gail Collins (2012) (NF – political)
        • Eyewitness Books: Sports – Tim Hammond 1988 (NF)
        • Eyewitness Books: Building – Philip Wilkinson 1995 (NF)
        • Eyewitness Books: Castle – Christopher Gravett 1994 (NF)

I was interested to see that the U.S. title for the kidlit book, Bedknob and Broomstick was singular. In my mind and growing up in England, I had always heard it as plural (i.e. Bedknobs and Broomsticks), but that could easily have been a faulty memory on my part. I’m going to read this as part of my ongoing Century of Books project – it fills out 1947 rather nicely.

I am deep into Obama’s autobiography. I miss that guy…

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal – Amy Krause Rosenthal (2016)

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Having read and totally enjoyed (nay, adored) Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s early book title, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life , I knew that the odds were that her new pub was also going to be of the same vein: experimental, drily funny, and wonderful – and so it was.

Goodreads describes it thus: “a literary experience that is unprecedented, unforgettable, and explosively human”, and I would argue that it’s that and a lot more. It’s really truly one of my favorite books so far this year. (Admittedly, the year is still young, but still….)

If you’ve read any of Krouse Rosenthal’s work, you’ll know that she is an artist who is comfortable pushing the edges of literature and the idea of books. Her work is not difficult to read, but there’s little linearity and very little of the traditional format that a reader would expect in a more traditional publication. And it’s this experimentation and playing with the format that makes Krouse Rosenthal’s work so much to read (at least it is for me). I really admire Krouse Rosenthal, and I just know that if we knew each other, we’d be close friends (in a completely non-weird non-freaky manner).

(Maybe I’ll call Krouse Rosenthal “AKR” in future paragraphs. It’s shorter. Besides, we’re friends…)

One of the first things that I noticed when I picked up this title is that it’s a very interactive experience. AKR encourages readers to text (as in phone text) her number and join in the reading experience that way, so it’s not just you sitting down and reading a book. It’s you reading a book, joining hundreds of other people at the same time in a social experience that is happening real-time. (It sounds like a pain, but it’s not at all as you can see if you visit her accompanying website right here.

The title, Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal, refers to a number of different things (which you’ll learn about if you read this), but it’s structured in a similar manner as a timetable in middle school with chapter headings titled “Social Sciences”, “History”, “Music” etc., just as a middle school student would face during his or her typical day. Under each chapter heading are pages and topics that relate to that theme in some way. For example, under “Music”, one comment is “You don’t see very many chubby orchestra conductors.” (It’s much much better than that example portrays. I promise.)

There is loads of white space, but it’s more of a space to breathe than negative space. The paragraphs can be short and interestingly formatted, and it’s not chronological at all as subjects are grouped by topic rather than a strict timeline. It’s as though you are inside AKR’s head as she remembers things – very similar to perhaps you (and certainly I) remember things. Just jumping around from one thing to the next with perhaps only a tenuous connection (if anything at all) between each separate thought.

I’m not at all certain that I’m doing this work justice, but if there is only one thing that you extract from this paltry review, it’s that you should go ahead and read it. Honestly. It’s that good.

ETA 03/24/2016: Just learned that Amy Krause Rosenthal died from cancer this week. 😦

When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi (2016)

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I had an amazing read of Paul Kalanithi’s autobiography called “When Breath Becomes Air.” Kalanithi was a young surgeon (aged 36) and in the final year of his neurosurgical residency when he received the troubling diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. He had none of the risk factors for this cancer, so it was totally out of the blue and arrived right at the time of his life when he’s just about to finish the arduous training and begin his “real” life of being a surgeon. He and his wife are both physicians so they know what the CT scans show, and when they hear that Kalanithi has about one year to live, what to do, what to do.

And so this short but powerful read is a meditation on what life means, both philosophically and in real life: Kalanithi is a philosopher as much as he is a surgeon and so this reads as more of an existential meander through those final months. It’s got the medical stuff in there, as well, but it’s more of an intellectual journey than you would expect, and though I am not well-versed in the old serious thinkers of yore, it was still an educational ride through this sad time.

As Kalanithi has received this terminal diagnosis, what does that mean for him (apart from the physical process of dying)? He mixes intellectual thought with thoughts of a more pragmatic nature (Which treatment should he have? Should he even attempt treatment at this point? What about having a child with his wife?), and so it’s a very thoughtful book best read slowly so you can digest what is being said.

Highly recommend this title if you’re a fan of physician authors such as Abraham Verghese or Atul Gwande – this is the same genre but a less straight-forward read due to philosophical questions Kalanithi addresses. This one definitely makes you think. (Or it did me, at any rate.)

Displacement: A Travelogue – Lucy Knisley (2015)

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This was a good graphic novel read of the fairly typical mode of bildungsroman (coming of age) structure, but this was notably different from most GNs with that structure in that it was a positive take on learning some lessons. (I find that more than a few GNs which are autobiographical in some way tend to be slightly morose and a touch whiny, but Knisley is very different in that manner: one of the many reasons why I enjoy her GNs so much is her optimism.)

So to the narrative: the author goes on a week-long cruise to accompany her elderly grandparents, both of whom are more than 90 years old, as a grand-daughter and as a caretaker. Clearly the trip wasn’t going to be that easy – both the Grands (as Knisley calls her grandparents) have difficulty with mobility, the grandma has pretty bad dementia, and the grandpa accidentally wets his pants quite frequently (and is unwilling to change his clothing). Aaah. Fun Times.

Knisley is a graphic artist who is really skillful at using her art to give a really strong sense of place to her readers. When I read the story in one go the first time, I could almost see the grandparents’ water-front room and balcony on the ship, and rather unfortunately, smell grandpa.

Being responsible for every aspect of the eldercare can be a large load to lift, especially when you’re by yourself. I imagine it was tough for Knisley, and hats off to her for being willing to support her grandparents in this way. She doesn’t flinch from the rough side of love, and shows both the flip sides of her annoyance with Grandma’s lack of memory and Grandpa’s damp pants with the guilt and love that she feels for them.

And interestingly at the same time, the structure is also built around Knisley reading her grandfather’s actual journal entries from when he was a fighter pilot in WWII, and the contrast between the very able and physically capable young man that her grandfather was in his younger days, and the rather frail very old man that Knisley sees in front of her is incredibly well handled.  As the narrative moves back and forth between the past and the present, I could really empathize with her dueling set of feelings, and yet at the same time, I was also sympathetic with her grandparents as it’s clear that they weren’t doing things just to be difficult. The two perspectives were well done.

I really enjoy Knisley’s work (see my review of Relish and The Age of License), and I’m sad that there is only one more title in her current oeuvre for me to read. Hopefully, more on the way!

From Middle England: A Memory of the Thirties – Philip Oakes (1980)

book363I have no idea where I found this title – probably a random pick at the FoL sale one year – but the title jumped into my hands when I was scanning my bookshelves the other day. What it is, actually, is an autobiography of a man’s childhood in the 1930’s up in Stoke, near what’s called “The Potteries” in England.

It’s a pretty normal childhood – nothing too extremely bad or great – a fact that made it very easy for me to connect to the author and his life as explained by his writing. In fact, this certainly reminded me of “Cider with Rosie” (Laurie Lee, 1960), but this one with a more serious and slightly different tone to it.

Oakes’ childhood mainly took place in the 1930’s in England. It’s a time of childhood fun, but also the time is tinged with the unavoidable memory that WWII is just about to break out (1939), and so there is a persistent and vague sense of anticipation and excitement for Oakes. He is a child after all, and all he knows of war is what he’s read in books and heard from relatives similar, as Oakes describes, as the “excitement before a birthday party”…

Oakes’ family lived in the Potteries in northern England, an area known for its pottery industry (thus the moniker) and all that is associated with that: heavily working class, factories, smoke in the air (and the smell)… His mother was a single mother (a stigma in the 1930’s) who was also struggling with severe ill health, so money was tight.

Stoke on Trent (or the Potteries) is quite high up on the left...

Stoke on Trent (or the Potteries) is quite high up on the left…

However, the one thing that his relatives put above all else was the importance of a good education, so when young Philip was offered the opportunity to attend an elite private school down south, the family must have been so excited knowing that this was the chance for Philip to leave his childhood to become something more that was possible otherwise. (Not so sure about Philip!)

So he goes to boarding school down south which is of course a different world for him – new friends, new school, new uniform, new rules…

“Dawdling was not allowed. It frayed moral fiber. It encouraged idleness. It was the antithesis of all that Mr. Gibbon [school headmaster] stood for…”

The private boarding school takes both boys and girls, but the genders are divided by living in separate wings of the establishment so they rarely seem to meet. The narrative relates the antics enjoyed by Philip and his new friend Carpenter: they raid the kitchen late at night for midnight feasts (sometimes helped by the maids who were only a few years older), they scrump apples, and have a secret club in the boiler room… Very Enid Blyton (except not so cuddly and warm).

It’s the 1930’s but the school is very old-fashioned with a lengthy history – strict uniforms were the rule, an hour to write home on Sundays and expectations that pupils support their school houses in football/soccer by standing on the lines in the rain on dreary Saturday afternoons.

Interestingly enough, a lot of the memories that Oakes mentions happened to overlap with mine of life in my old private all-girls school (about 650 students) growing up in England even though it was fifty years later. (The more things change…) My twin sister and I attended the same school (along with 90% of our friends) from when we were 6 to until we finished our A-levels when we were 18. We were very lucky in many ways to have this experience and it’s one that I look back on with fondness most of the time.

My old school in England in 1982 - Bedford High School....

My old school in England in 1982 – Bedford High School….

Our school had very strict cultural rules which governed friendship, lunchtime, and all the other important parts of growing up in that milieu. Lunchtime rules and expectations was that whoever sat at the head of the table (and rules decided which end of the table was “head”) would serve lunch to the others sitting there and then after lunch, the playground opened up to another set of generally accepted rules. One lunch rule that I clearly remember was that the first person to touch the salt and pepper and say “veins” would also be immune from doing “the cloth” which referred to wiping down the table after lunch. (Gross at the best of times.) Anyway, these expectations weren’t really talked about but everyone was aware of them and generally followed them to the letter.

Oakes’ descriptions of the school’s morning assembly was really similar to how our school organized ours, even down to the typical hymns that were chosen on special occasions, the organ that accompanied them and the rows of school pupils listening to the headmaster (or mistress in our case) as s/he read the results of the cricket team, the date and topic of the next school debate, and asking who had engaged in minor misdemeanors such as a missing pair of gloves from someone’s coat pocket.

As I look back on that experience of going to a public (which means private in England) school in England, it was idyllic in a lot of ways as an educational experience, but I must admit that I did leave it feeling very unprepared to face the world. (It was generally assumed by the school that most pupils would be going to university, but if you weren’t one of the pupils who followed that well-worn path (i.e. me), the school wasn’t really focused on giving you tools to handle that. If you’re going to go to the Great Unknown such an American university (which we did), then you’re on your own, sister.

It’s great to live in a world with widely accepted rules and most of your friends in the same boat, but when that was the case (as in moi) and you leave that educational vacuum, it’s strange to need to make new friends and not have the comfort of a regimented class schedule.

Our group of (naughty) friends on a BHS trip to Boulogne (or Calais) in 1978...

Our group of (naughty) friends on a BHS trip to Boulogne (or Calais) in 1978… (I’m in the middle.)

Don’t get me wrong: I adored the experience of going to a private school and would probably have been eaten alive in a comprehensive if I needed to go there. If I had kids, I would try and replicate the social side of my old school life for them. It’s just that the whole school thing didn’t really give me the tools I would need to succeed once I’d stepped outside into the real world for the first time. (Sink or swim after that, my friends.)

However, lessons were learned, skills were developed, all is well and I expect that the overall school experience is very different now.

Way off track there wrt the book, but if you’re ever curious about life in private school in the early-mid twentieth century (and up to the 70s), then this book will give you a good idea. I really enjoyed it and it brought back many happy memories of school days. Recommend it.